Windows into Another World

Day 66

I wasn't sure what to expect when visiting the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, MA. I had heard about it often enough to know that at least some members of its staff or board have been active in the museum community, but for one thing, I didn't know how big or small it would be, and for another, I knew almost nothing about the subject. I had never been, in part because it's off the beaten path. I wonder why it's in Clinton. I haven't been able to find out whether the town has a large Russian American or Russian Orthodox community, for example, and it has a Greek Orthodox but no Russian church. So, I didn't know if I was stepping into an art or history museum, or more of a community center with a gallery.
Image with a gold background depicting two angels, one dressed in red and the other dressed in blue.
Angels with a kerykeion, or staff.

I was definitely impressed by how polished and put-together the museum seems, even just on entering. In my experience, smaller museums tend to be more run-down and humble in their presentation, for the natural reason that small museums tend to have small budgets. I don't like to form snap judgements, but the spacious, clean galleries created a good first impression.

The Museum of Russian Icons has a beautiful collection, and clearly wants the visitors to engage with it. I loved that they provide magnifying glasses, hung on hooks throughout the galleries. Many of the icons are incredibly detailed -- some elements painted with a brush made of a single hair -- so the opportunity to take a closer look was especially welcome, but I think more museums could offer this simple strategy. The majority of the art is not covered in glass or plexiglass (very trusting) and the glass that covers some doesn't create glare or get in the way of the magnifier. The visitor experience starts at the bottom level with a video on how the icons were traditionally made. This was interesting and worthwhile, but I was a little distracted by my surroundings. The building was formerly a courthouse and jail, and the videos are in unlit former cells. It took me a minute to figure out that the audio wand was on the wall, and unhooking it would play the sound. The rest of the museum is well-lit, allowing light to reflect off of the gold leaf and other features that signify that the icons depict things not of this world.

The museum has a number of really nice touches in terms of explaining the history and culture of the icons and of Russia more generally. I liked the case that displayed materials used in the icons, from malachite and lapis lazuli for pigments to eggshells in a clay bowl because egg yolk is a binding agent in the paint. One corner of a gallery was arranged the way that icons were traditionally displayed in Russian homes, with a number of small icons grouped together and lit by a lamp. In other areas, several icons using the same motif were arranged together, with an explanation of that motif, which made it easier to understand what I saw in other icons. In a sense, the labels teach the viewer a little bit about how to "read" the icons.

Image of Jesus' head on a background that faintly resembles cloth. There is a noticeable crack in the center of the image, suggesting it is quite old.
This is an example of a "Made Without Hands" icon, which depicts
the story of Christ miraculously creating image of his face on a cloth
 by pressing the cloth to his face. From
The more I learned about the subject of icons, the more interested I became, but I found some of the museum's explanations were uneven. I hoped the videos in several corners would clarify, but they seemed to be tenuously related, and some were an hour or more long. There was one very interesting overview panel about Russian icons through history, which explained how they were first made by monks, and how as icons for the home became more popular they were made in specialized workshops. Another panel introduced the subject of iconoclasm, and how icons have only become popular again recently after a long period of not being allowed under Soviet rule. However, the labels with individual icons consistently referred to the entire practice of icon making and use in the past tense and described them in a way that didn't differentiate between an icon from 1500 or one from 1900. The explanations of the religious symbolism were also uneven, and I frequently found myself feeling like I was missing key information. At first I thought that concepts specific to Russian Orthodox practice were being explained while concepts that most people who had gone to a Christian Sunday school would understand were assumed to be obvious. That would be a problem for non-Christian audiences, but then I found a label with a very useful and detailed explanation of the story of John the Baptist, so my theory doesn't hold.

What fascinated me was the way that the museum seems to exist in a balance between looking at the icons as art and looking at them as religious objects. The labels seem written for an audience that is unfamiliar with Russian Orthodox culture and practice. I wonder what visiting the museum is like for people who are practicing Russian Orthodox; do the labels ring true to them? Since any religion is going to have variation and the significance of religious practices can be personal as well as cultural, I imagine that no descriptions work for everyone. On the other hand, as someone from outside of that culture, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to see a window in, in a space that's friendly to outsiders without a hint of proselytizing. The icons themselves are incredible works of art, but perhaps because the craft of making them was often quite standardized and the individual artist was not named, it's easy to view information about their technique as historical, rather than artistic critique. 

I found myself assuming that the museum staff, board, and volunteers has a non-trivial number of people who are Russian Orthodox and Russian or Russian-American, because how could you have a museum like this without that kind of participation? However, Western museums have a long and troubled history of interpreting non-Western and Native religious artifacts without the input of anyone connected to their culture of origin. Russia's unique place between the East and West is relevant here. One would hope any museum of religious artifacts would include the appropriate input today, but there are definitely museums that don't. One small panel described the process of having the museum blessed by someone from the church, which I thought was very interesting... but the panel didn't say why it was blessed. Is the blessing necessary in order to display icons properly, or was this a choice? On a different level, I very much enjoyed being a visitor and essentially a tourist here, but what is it like for believers to see these icons out of their religious context? And if someone felt moved to pray in front of one of the icons in the museum gallery, would that be comfortable for them? Would it be appropriate?

An icon including an ornate metalwork frame partially overlapping and protecting the painting. In the center is Christ after crucifixion.
Man of Sorrows icon. From

I do recommend the museum for people who are interested in learning more. They also have a temporary exhibit of nesting dolls up through late June (which was beautiful, if sparsely interpreted) and they will have a temporary exhibit of Tiffany windows opening in mid-July. One other note: the museum is currently involved in a situation involving repatriation (returning cultural property to its place of origin) of sixteen of its icons, but I don't know enough about the situation to make an informed comment. 

PS. On a blogkeeping note, I am going to be visiting Salt Lake City later this month for a friend's wedding, and while I won't have much time for touristing, if I have the chance I will visit a local history or religious history museum out there. Consider that penciled in on my list.